Bush Gets Out the Shovel

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 2, 2008; 1:18 PM

President Bush's interview with ABC News's Charlie Gibson is being heralded by some media outlets as reflective, apologetic and self-critical, even "stunningly candid" -- but it was none of those things.

Rather, in the first of several planned "exit interviews," Bush continues to refuse to take responsibility for a single thing that went wrong on his watch.

The president who sent troops into a disastrous war under false pretenses, led the economy into its biggest crash since the Great Depression, let New Orleans drown, embraced torture and turned America into a pariah nation seems to believe that if anyone is to blame, it's not him. He just happened to be in charge during a series of unfortunate events.

Bush evidently thinks he can win over the verdict of history with a smirk and a shrug, and by maintaining that he "stuck to his principles."

But there's little reason to think history will be kind to him. Now down to his last 50 days in the White House, he is plagued by the lowest presidential approval ratings in the history of modern polling. The country has judged him and found him wanting. So either we're all fools or he is.

Here is the transcript and some video of the interview.

Hopefully, Bush's next interviewers won't let him get away with this stuff.

Quoting Bush Out of Context

The biggest headlines around the nation and the world were generated by Bush's comment that he was "unprepared for war" -- implying that he realizes he should have been better prepared and regrets some of his actions.

But if you examine the full exchange, you see that's not what Bush was saying.

Gibson: "What were you most unprepared for?"

Bush: "Well, I think I was unprepared for war. In other words, I didn't campaign and say, 'Please vote for me, I'll be able to handle an attack.' In other words, I didn't anticipate war. Presidents -- one of the things about the modern presidency is that the unexpected will happen."

That's not an admission of anything. If anything, it's a suggestion that his situation was inherent in the job.

Then there's Bush's expression of regret over the flawed intelligence about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. But it was just lip service.

Gibson: "You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?"

Bush: "I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess."

Gibson: "If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?"

Bush: "Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely."

Gibson: "No, if you had known he didn't."

Bush: "Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate."

So Bush "regrets" the flawed intelligence, but takes no responsibility for it, despite the considerable evidence that the intelligence agencies told him what they knew he wanted to hear -- and when they didn't, he ignored them.

He says everyone else thought the same thing -- although his standard of proof before taking the nation to war should have been higher than anyone else's. And furthermore, he and Cheney hinted at a more imminent and cataclysmic threats than were supported even by the flawed intelligence.

Authoritative reports have made clear that Bush and Cheney wanted to go to war in Iraq pretty much no matter what, and that the WMD claim was classic Bushian post-hoc rationalization.

And the final proof that Bush doesn't seriously regret the flawed intelligence is that he doesn't regret the invasion -- and won't say that he wouldn't have invaded Iraq anyway. (In fact Bush has previously and repeatedly said that he would have done it regardless.)

Bush is also getting headlines for saying he is "sorry" about the financial crisis. But it was far from an apology.

"I'm sorry it's happening, of course," Bush said. "Obviously I don't like the idea of people losing jobs, or being worried about their 401Ks. On the other hand, the American people got to know that we will safeguard the system. I mean, we're in. And if we need to be in more, we will."

Gibson eventually followed up: "Do you feel in any way responsible for what's happening?"

Bush replied: "You know, I'm the President during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived in President, during I arrived in President."

So he's really blaming President Clinton.

Then there's Bush's take on the election. He doesn't take any significant responsibility for the Republican blowout in November, even though it's been widely seen as a massive repudiation of all things Bush. Instead, he points the finger at his party and -- implicitly-- its choice of presidential candidate.

Gibson: "Was the election in any way a repudiation of the Bush administration?"

Bush: "I think it was a repudiation of Republicans. And I'm sure some people voted for Barack Obama because of me. I think most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living room for the next four years explaining policy."

Presumably as opposed to John McCain.

I wrote in my November 12 column, Bush Still Draws a Blank, about Bush's inability in a CNN interview to summon any serious regrets, other than over a few public-relations gaffes.

At the time, I asked readers to join my new discussion group, White House Watchers, to suggest things Bush should regret. Come weigh in some more. And let me know here what else you'd like to talk about.

Bush's Mania

One of Bush's most bewildering traits has been his unfailing public optimism. See, for instance, these columns from the past year and a half: Bush's Optimists Club, Bush's Messiah Complex, Bush: Clueless and Happy, and Bush's Eternal Sunshine.

Nothing, apparently, can get Bush down. It was near-mania on display in the ABC interview.

Gibson: "Let's talk a little bit about eight years as being President. What don't the American people know about being President? What would surprise them the most?"

Bush: "That's an interesting question. I think, at least from my administration, I think they'd be surprised at how our team has worked so closely together. Some days we're not so happy, some days happy; every day has been pretty joyous, though -- that when you have a purpose in life, that no matter what it may look like from afar, that we're a highly motivated group of people that are honored to serve.

"In other words, I think people look at the White House and say, oh, man, what a miserable experience it is to be President. You know, there's a lot of noise, a lot of criticism, a lot of name-calling, a lot of this, a lot of that. But I think people would be surprised when they walked in the Oval Office and the White House to see a highly motivated group of people that really enjoy what we're doing. . . . "

Gibson: "That's the second time I've heard you use the word 'joyful' about the presidency, and that might take people by surprise. Even in really tough times?"

Bush: "Oh, yes. As I said, some times are happy, some not happy. I don't want people to misconstrue. It's not -- I don't feel joyful when somebody loses their life, nor do I feel joyful from somebody loses a job. That concerns me. And the President ends up carrying a lot of people's grief in his soul during a presidency. One of the things about the presidency is you deal with a lot of tragedy -- whether it be hurricanes, or tornadoes, or fires, or death -- and you spend time being the Comforter-in-Chief. But the idea of being able to serve a nation you love is -- has been joyful. In other words, my spirits have never been down. I have been sad, but the spirits are up."

And Bush remains optimistic about the verdict of history.

Gibson: "As you leave, what do you think the country's feeling is about George W. Bush?"

Bush: "I don't know. I hope they feel that this is a guy that came, didn't sell his soul for politics, had to make some tough decisions, and did so in a principled way. . . .

"I'll be frank with you. I don't spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history. I guess I don't worry about long-term history, either, since I'm not going to be around to read it -- (laughter) -- but, look, in this job you just do what you can. The thing that's important for me is to get home and look in that mirror and say, I did not compromise my principles. And I didn't. I made tough calls. And some presidencies have got a lot of tough decisions to make."

The Coverage

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "In a surprisingly candid admission, President George W. Bush said that when he was elected to the White House he was not prepared to wage war and that one of his biggest regrets as president was the inaccurate intelligence upon which he based his decision to attack Iraq. . . .

"He also expressed remorse that the global financial crisis has cost jobs and harmed retirement accounts."

Suzanne Goldenberg writes in the Guardian: "George Bush, in a moment of reflection ahead of his departure from the White House, last night admitted that the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein on the basis of flawed intelligence was the biggest regret of his presidency. The acknowledgment marks the first time that Bush has publicly expressed doubts about his rationale for going to war on Iraq."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that "the president was unusually blunt in identifying shortcomings during his tenure -- saying that his 'biggest regret' was getting the intelligence wrong in Iraq, and conceding that he was not ready to be a wartime president when he first took office. . . .

"The self-criticism is notable for a president who has long resisted looking back at his time in the White House and once was unable to provide an example of a mistake he had made in office."

But Eggen also notes that "Bush continued to express confidence in his overall course as president, even though three out of four Americans currently disagree. For example, Bush said he was 'sorry' about the severe impact of the global financial crisis, but he deflected blame for the meltdown."

Opinion Watch

Andrew Sullivan blogs for the Atlantic: "Perhaps the most striking aspect of president George W. Bush is his inability to actually take responsibility for anything. I'm not sure quite where this comes from - daddy, drink or denial, or some gruesome combination of the three."

Sullivan quotes the passage above about Bush's regret over the failed intelligence, and writes: "Observe the passive constructions. The description of others. 'People in my administration.' 'Prior to my arrival.' Everyone got it wrong but him, the one person ultimately responsible for getting it right."

Greg Sargent writes for TPM Election Central: "For Bush to blame the failure of intel for his decision to invade is not a concession at all, and it is not an admission of failure on his part. Rather, it is the opposite of these things. It is an evasion of responsibility for what happened.

"Yet the big news orgs seem unable -- or unwilling -- to grasp this simple dynamic or give readers the info they need to understand it, and for some reason are perfectly willing to enable Bush's falsification of history."

Meanwhile, New York Daily News opinion columnist Michael Goodwin sees news in Bush's choice not to explicitly say he would have attacked Iraq even if he knew there were no WMD.

"Bush told Gibson the flawed intelligence showing Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was the 'biggest regret of all the presidency.'

"When Gibson asked the obvious followup, Bush said he would not 'speculate' on whether he would have gone to war if he had known the weapons didn't exist.

"'That is a do-over that I can't do,' Bush said.

"Excuse me? This is not just dopey language. Bush's failure to defend the invasion is news. Big, gigantic news.

"Ever since it became clear in late 2003 that Iraq did not have the weapons the world believed it had, Bush has insisted repeatedly he would do the invasion again. 'And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again,' he said in December 2005, in a typical defense. 'Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country.'

"Indeed, the willingness to do it again became an article of faith for the GOP, with most of the party's 2008 presidential candidates signing on to that pledge.

"Now Bush abandons them and his own record by ducking the question and casting doubt on what he called a core principle."

The Last Campaign

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Bush is using his final 50 days in office to tout his legacy, hoping to leave a lasting impression of overshadowed progress. On Monday, World AIDS Day, Bush was heralded for his leadership in fighting the disease, a point that even his Democratic critics readily concede. . . .

"[H]e is notably carving out time to emphasize priorities of the last eight years.

"That is why on Tuesday, he'll be in Greensboro, N.C., to trumpet a program that mentors children of prisoners. It is part of a nationwide mentoring program that Bush promoted in his 2003 State of the Union address, the same time he announced his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

"On Friday, Bush will give a speech defending his efforts in the Middle East. In the coming weeks, he is expected to reflect on the No Child Left Behind Act, the signature domestic policy win from his first term; and on the two-year anniversary of a controversial troop build up that helped shore up security in Iraq.

"All that follows a quietly building pattern of Bush speeches in which he has defended his record on helping veterans, promoting volunteerism, putting his stamp of judicial philosophy on the Supreme Court, and standing by trade even in tough economic times."

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush has begun the long climb up the steep hill of history, signaling in the past week how he will burnish a legacy weighed down by war, an economic crisis and disastrous poll numbers. . . .

"Mr. Bush is not the only one defending his presidency. His former adviser, Karl Rove, will appear in New York Tuesday evening, where he'll argue against the proposition that Mr. Bush is 'the worst president of the last 50 years.'"

Stephen Hayes tells CNN: "[T]here's an ongoing Bush Legacy Project that's been meeting in the White House. . .with senior advisers -- Karl Rove. Karen Hughes has been involved, current senior Bush administration advisers. And they are looking at how to sort of roll out the president's legacy."

Obama's New Team

Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President-elect Barack Obama, unveiling his national-security team, said he will use the 'power of our moral example' in making a clean break from Bush administration policies on Iraq, Afghanistan and overseas diplomacy."

Karen DeYoung and Michael D. Shear write in The Washington Post: "Obama laid out a vision of an America whose global stature is restored and whose military, diplomatic and economic power are balanced with one another and with 'the power of our moral example.'

"But he acknowledged that 'grave' and 'urgent' national security issues, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, potential conflict between Pakistan and India, and economic crisis at home and abroad, require immediate attention. The challenge will be balancing those immediate priorities handed over by the Bush administration -- what the Obama camp calls the 'inheritance issues' -- with national and international expectations for the longer-term changes he pledged during the campaign."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "After years of watching American leadership crumble under the weight of bad decisions made in a White House shuttered to all debate, President-elect Barack Obama's national security team is a relief.

"Starting with the selection of Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former rival, as secretary of state, the president-elect has displayed his usual self-confidence. Declaring that he prizes 'strong personalities and strong opinions,' Mr. Obama, who has limited foreign-policy experience, showed that he wants advisers with real authority who will not be afraid to disagree with him -- two traits disastrously lacking in President Bush's team. . . .

"Certainly, her selection indicates a radical break with the disastrous way that Vice President Dick Cheney ran so much of foreign and national security policy out of the vice president's office.

"Another failing of the Bush administration was that neither the president nor his two secretaries of state were 'closers' who could set a foreign-policy goal (Israeli-Palestinian peace, for instance) and then develop and execute a strategy to achieve it. We have more faith that the Obama-Clinton duo will do so."

The Washington Post editorial board warns about going overboard: "Eager to correct the perceived errors of the Bush administration, Mr. Obama and his appointees are heavily invested in the notion that better diplomacy can answer Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon, ease the threat of terrorism from Pakistan and maybe even solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. We hope they are right. If they are wrong, particularly about Iran, someone in this group will need to speak up."

On Their Way Out

David G. Savage writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The outgoing Bush administration is planning to announce a broad new 'right of conscience' rule permitting medical facilities, doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other healthcare workers to refuse to participate in any procedure they find morally objectionable, including abortion and possibly even artificial insemination and birth control.

"For more than 30 years, federal law has dictated that doctors and nurses may refuse to perform abortions. The new rule would go further by making clear that healthcare workers also may refuse to provide information or advice to patients who might want an abortion.

"It also seeks to cover more employees. For example, in addition to a surgeon and a nurse in an operating room, the rule would extend to 'an employee whose task it is to clean the instruments,' the draft rule said.

"The 'conscience' rule could set the stage for an abortion controversy in the early months of Barack Obama's administration."

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "President Bush issued an executive order on Monday that denies collective bargaining rights to about 8,600 federal employees who work in law enforcement, intelligence and other agencies responsible for national security.

"Mr. Bush said it would be inconsistent with 'national security requirements' to allow those employees to engage in collective bargaining with respect to the conditions of their employment. . . .

"Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that employees at the alcohol, tobacco and firearms agency had just 'had their collective bargaining rights stripped away for no justifiable reason.'"

Boston Globe opinion columnist Derrick Z. Jackson calls on Obama to step up: "One of the Bush administration's final gifts to American workers is a rule to make it even more difficult to prove the dangers of workplace chemicals. . . .

"Obama helped bail out gluttonous Wall Street and is working on incompetent Detroit. He worked hard to bring rival Hillary Clinton into his administration. Now he needs to publicly and personally urge Bush to not utterly abandon the American worker. The Joes and Janes of America need their own press conference. Obama should stand before them to declare that if Bush institutes the 'industry-by-industry' toxics regulation, he will move as swiftly as Bush did in 2001 to kill it. It would be a strong sign that his White House will be one where the working stiff is not stiffed."

Wiretapping Watch

CongressDaily reports: "A high-tech watchdog group will head to court Tuesday to challenge the constitutionality of a federal law aimed at granting immunity to telecommunications companies participating in illegal domestic surveillance. At the hearing before U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco, the Electronic Frontier Foundation will argue that amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act improperly take away Americans' claims arising out of the First and Fourth Amendments; violates the government's separation of powers; and robs telecom customers of their rights without due process of law."

David Kravets writes for Wired: "The judge presiding over the case, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco, announced late Monday he wanted to discuss 11 questions at Tuesday's hearing, one of which goes directly to the heart of the immunity legislation."

That question: "Is there any precedent for this type of enactment that is analogous in all of these respects: retroactivity; immunity for constitutional violations; and delegation of broad discretion to the executive branch to determine whether to invoke the provision?"

Good question!

Cheney Watch

Christopher Sherman writes for the Associated Press: "A judge dismissed indictments against Vice President Dick Cheney and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday and told the southern Texas prosecutor who brought the case to exercise caution as his term in office ends.

"Willacy County District Attorney Juan Angel Guerra had accused Cheney and the other defendants of responsibility for prisoner abuse. The judge's order ended two weeks of sometimes-bizarre court proceedings."

Nixon Watch

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "Fox News journalist Chris Wallace on Monday evening defended President Bush against criticism by Hollywood filmmaker Ron Howard that the president has abused his office in a way similar to President Richard Nixon.

"'Richard Nixon's crimes were committed purely in the interest of his own political gain,' Mr. Wallace told Mr. Howard before an audience of a few hundred after viewing the filmmakers new film 'Frost/Nixon,' which is about the only U.S. president to resign from office.

"'I think to compare what Nixon did, and the abuses of power for pure political self preservation, to George W. Bush trying to protect this country -- even if you disagree with rendition or waterboarding -- it seems to me is both a gross misreading of history both then and now,' Mr. Wallace said. . . .

"James Reston Jr., one of the researchers who helped interviewer David Frost . . . [and] who is one of the characters portrayed in the film, said the film had been 'driven by the metaphor of George W. Bush.'"

Christmas Ornament Watch

Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger report that one of the ornaments hanging off the White House Christmas tree will not be like the others: "The nine-inch ball is covered with swirly red and white stripes -- and, in tiny glued-on text, salutes [Democratic congressman Jim McDermott's] support for a resolution to impeach President Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on the waiting, Stuart Carlson on cementing the legacy, Antonio Carlos Nicolielo on Barney's betrayal.

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